Thrillers are a popular genre in fiction and, if done correctly, almost guaranteed to find an audience. But not everyone can write fiction properly. So here’s how to write a thriller novel like a pro.
It's probably the most well-known story of them all. A tale of good versus evil. The good guys versus the bad guys. Fighting against high stakes and insurmountable odds. The ticking clock, bombs going off, the bullets flying, and glamorous spies in tuxedos drinking Martinis.
Sounds familiar? Well, it should. The thriller genre – and its related subgenres – have been around since the beginning of fiction, and Hollywood screenwriting adaptations have also popularised the genre. As a result, readers love nothing more on their Kindle than a good thriller storyline that leaves them on the edge of their seats, biting their nails as the hero or heroine races against the clock to save the world from imminent catastrophe.
Types of Thrillers
Thriller writing takes skill – and not everyone can pull it off. It's one of the most challenging forms of creative writing to get right. Even after 17 spy thriller novels, I'm still in the learning process of refining the perfect thriller novel. But if you follow these tips, you'll be well on your way to emulating great thriller bestsellers such as The Bourne Identity.
First, we should specify what types of thrillers are out there. It's worth pointing out from the outset that “thriller” has arguably a wide-ranging definition. Any story genre which generates excitement, adrenaline, and a heightened heartbeat can be seen as a thriller. So technically, science fiction, mystery novels, and crime fiction can fall under the thriller category.
I'm sure you'll agree that Hannibal Lector pitting wits against the FBI in The Silence of the Lambs would count as a thriller. So would Sherlock Holmes foiling Professor Moriarty's latest devious plot. Even though they would likely be categorized as horror and crime, respectively.
Here are the five main types of thriller novels you'll find today on bookshelves.
This is probably one of the most popular types of thrillers of all and the subgenre most likely to find its way onto the Hollywood big screen. Gone Girl immediately springs to mind, which starred Ben Affleck in the main character role.
Everyone loves a nail-biter, and a psychological thriller can easily have crossover with the horror genre (again, The Silence of the Lambs being the classic example).
Legal / Crime Thriller
John Grisham thoroughly dominates this is the corner of the thriller market. With bestselling books such as The Firm and A Time To Kill, Grisham has proven time and time again that the law can definitely co-exist with the thriller genre. Hollywood agrees, which is why most of Grisham's books are now successful movies.
In the crime thriller sub-genre, the best examples that come to mind are Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector trilogy. An older but more classic example would be Raymond Chandler.
Political thrillers are unique in the sense that they are almost always confined to US politics. Rarely do you see a political thriller set in other countries. The author that comes most to mind with political thrillers is James Patterson, who is now collaborating with former US President Bill Clinton.
Former Georgia Governor candidate Stacey Abrams has also brought out a political thriller called While Justice Sleeps, which shows that politicians are not afraid to use their experience to try and churn out a thriller novel or two.
A historical thriller can also be classed as a war thriller, with spy thrillers set during World War II especially popular. So as you can see, there's a lot of crossover between sub-genres.
Historical thrillers are any story set in a specific historical period. Examples include authors such as Ken Follett, C.J. Sansom, Hilary Mantel, Robert Harris, and Alan Furst. Even horror writer Stephen King got in on the act with his alternative history thriller about the JFK assassination, 11.22.63.
Spy thrillers (or “espionage” to use the proper name of the genre) is also an extremely popular thriller genre and the one I decided to specialize in with my Department 89 series. Spy thrillers have been written for more than a hundred years by the likes of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan. However, these days, the ones dominating the genre include Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Steve Berry, Ian Fleming, and Robert Ludlum.
However, Clancy, Fleming, and Ludlum are all now dead, with their work being continued by trusted ghostwriters.
The 8-Step Manual To Writing a Good Thriller
Let's now take a look at the different ways to write a really good thriller.
1. Flesh Out Your Main Characters
Nobody likes one-dimensional, stereotypical, bland characters. If the reader doesn't connect emotionally to the characters, they won't feel the need to keep going with the story because they simply won't care what happens to them.
So for each of the main characters, you need to flesh out and develop their characters and backstory. Every successful thriller has relatable and believable characters who have motivations, weaknesses, ambition, flaws, and ego. You need to introduce each of them to the reader gradually, so by the end, the characters become almost like good friends – even your villain.
What you should not do, however, is give the reader an “info dump” where you attempt to give all the pertinent character information in one go in one book. This slows down the story and kills momentum. Instead, it’s much better to spread the information over a series of books, perhaps in the form of flashbacks.
One trick I often employ when introducing a new character is to visualize what actor would theoretically play the character in a movie or TV version of your book. Then I develop dialogue and mannerisms based on how that actor usually acts on-screen. I find it makes the character more real to me.
2. Start With a Bang To Hook The Reader
This is what I call the “Bond effect” – at the start of every James Bond movie, there is an opening sequence which launches the viewer right into the action. More often than not, the opening sequence is entirely unrelated to the actual story – it's just there to grab people’s attention and get everyone fired up.
For example, who can forget the infamous opening scene in Casino Royale when Daniel Craig remembers his first sanctioned kill in a bathroom? After watching it, nobody could stop watching.
In thriller books, you MUST hook your reader from the very first page. Otherwise, you're going to lose them very quickly. So from the first time they open your book, the opening scene has to suck them in, so they keep turning the pages. I employ this tactic in all my spy thriller books to great success.
3. Include Plenty Of Plot Twists and Turns
Another thing nobody likes in books is for the storyline to be absurdly easy. Anti-climatic plots are always going to annoy a reader who has invested time and money in your book. So throughout the story, everything has to appear hopeless and against the odds, only for your good guys and girls to pull it off at the end.
Whether it's an uncatchable serial killer, a hidden bomb about to release a deadly plague, or a hostage situation, never let up on the challenges and the tension. Put in lots of plot twists, so just as the reader thinks they've worked out what's going to happen, you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and surprise them.
4. Take Inspiration From Movies
Despite what some people may tell you, it isn't plagiarism to be inspired by the movies. If you're stuck and unsure how to proceed with your story, think about some related movies you've seen lately. Did they have some great scenes that stick out in your mind? Could you incorporate elements of that into your story?
Subconsciously, I've often found myself inserting elements of movie scenes into my thriller books. For example, parts of the famous car chase scenes in The Bourne Identity and Ronin have got into my books when I've had car chase scenes myself.
5. Look At What’s Going On In Real Life
If the movies don’t help with story ideas or plot problems, then how about real life? Watching the news, for example, can give you a wealth of ideas. Whether it's criminal activity, terrorism, or politics, seeing things unfold in the real world can often make you wonder, “what if that were to happen in my book? How would my version of the event play out?”
Some readers don't like “grabbed from the headlines” plots, but if done properly with a compelling story and a suitable number of twists, the newspaper could be your new best friend.
6. Avoid Really Unrealistic Scenarios
Anyone who has ever watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie will know what I mean here. I'm talking about someone holding onto the side of a jet fighter as it whizzes through New York. Then, ripping off the cockpit window, grabbing the pilot, shooting them, and throwing them out, before finally jumping into the moving plane themselves and taking over the controls.
I'm all for escapist fiction, and I've had a few plots which may have stretched credibility just a tad. But there's stretched, and then there's ultra-stretched. If you write something ridiculous, it'll annoy the reader and ruin your credibility as an author.
7. Keep The Pacing and Dialogue Brisk and Snappy
Another thing that ruins a perfectly good thriller book is when the story slows down to a snail's pace. This could be due to an “info dump,” or you're trying your best to squeeze in all the loose ends before the end of the book. Either way, you don't want to slow down the story. Keep the pace fast and constantly moving.
Snappy dialogue is also essential. The one thing I and many others love in a story is rapid-fire dialogue between characters. Whether it's an argument between colleagues, the cop making the criminal realize they're definitely going to jail, or a passionate monologue from your main character, getting the dialogue right is the most critical part of the book. So keep tweaking your draft until the dialogue sounds sensational.
One thing to remember while doing dialogue is to avoid slang, colloquialisms, and sayings that someone not from your country wouldn't understand. If the reader has to reach for a dictionary to look something up, you've just spoilt it for them.
8. Set Up High Stakes And An Amazing Climax
Every successful thriller is a page-turner, which means you need to set up the stakes to be high enough. You don't want the reader to feel cheated when you build up the suspense only to present them with a damp squib at the end of the book. That's one guaranteed way to lose a reader and get a negative Amazon review into the bargain.
So if you're introducing a bomb, make it a nuclear bomb. If it's a knife, make it a Samurai sword. If it's a gun, make it the biggest baddest gun you've ever seen in your entire life. Go big or go home.
If you're writing a series, the best tactic to employ is a cliffhanger which is guaranteed to have the reader buy the next book in the series (provided you've given them a good story so far). I do this all the time with my books, as I know from personal experience that there's nothing worse than a rotten ending.
If you're not writing a series, ensure that you've wrapped up all loose ends at the end and that the good guys have saved the day.
The Final Word On How To Write a Thriller Novel
Writing a thriller is an art form, but like any art form, it can be mastered if you practice it. If you're new to the genre, you need to read other thriller books in your chosen subgenre, study the elements that make the books work and don't work. For example, study the dialogue and how sentences are phrased.
Once you think you've got it figured out, then start to write your own. All going well, you'll eventually make it as a bestselling author, even though the competition is fierce (and getting fiercer by the day).
FAQs on How to Write a Thriller Novel
What's the difference between a thriller and suspense?
To be honest, there's not a whole lot of difference. Both thrillers and suspense books provide tension, shocks, surprises, and excitement.
What are the key elements of a thriller?
First of all, a good story with high stakes and a sense of “dread.” A likable protagonist is next, along with a believable and nasty villain. And everything should be underpinned with cliffhangers and a ticking clock plot.
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